Alex Salmond’s comments, that the SNP are putting independence on the backburner, should come as no surprise to those who have looked closely at the evolution of the SNP. What will surprise some is the public nature of these comments. In that sense Salmond’s words are unprecedented. However, they only bring to public attention the reality of the direction of travel over the past decade or so by what was once referred to as the SNP’s “gradualists”. The SNP leadership long ago drew the conclusion that they favoured the gradual accumulation of powers for the Scottish parliament, leading if not to outright independence, then at least a form of extreme fiscal autonomy within a redesigned federal Britain.
The decisive factor in this process was their understanding that the overwhelming majority of Scottish and British capitalist interests are opposed to the break-up of the British state and Scottish independence. The SNP, which positioned itself as a radical nationalist party to the left of New Labour, is now increasingly being exposed as a pro-business party. On the issue of Scottish independence they have also been prepared to come to an accommodation with the capitalist class. As we explained in a document we wrote in 2003
“The capitalists are opposed to the break-up of Britain for different reasons. On the one hand there is the threat of economic dislocation that could result in Scotland became independent. The Scottish economy is intimately linked with that of the rest of Britain and the inevitable impact on trade and profits are a key factor why big business in Scotland is overwhelmingly against independence. A major national conflict would threaten the stability of capitalism on a UK basis.
“There is also the loss of international prestige if British imperialism, weakened although it is, were to lose “control” in its own backyard. The separation of Scotland could also have a major destabilising effect in Northern Ireland as the Protestant community could see it as the slippery slope to Northern Ireland being cast adrift from Britain. For all of these reasons the bourgeois will fight tooth and nail to oppose Scotland’s separation from the UK.
“The SNP leadership, who have tailored their economic and political programme to entice big business to their side, have had to back down. They know there is no prospect in the short term of convincing the ruling class of their case for an independent Scotland at this stage. As a capitalist nationalist party they are not prepared to enter into decisive conflict with the class who they would rely on to run an independent Scotland. The SNP leadership’s moves to water down their position on the national question have been done to take account of the brick wall they have faced from the capitalist class in Scotland.” Scotland and the National Question – September 2003 International Socialists (CWI Scotland), forerunner of the Socialist Party Scotland.
If anything the economic crisis that engulfed the world economy in 2008 has reinforced this process even further. The collapse of the Scottish headquartered banks, HBoS and RBS, saved by their effective nationalisation by the UK government was a huge shock to the SNP leadership. Salmond himself was describing HBoS as a “strong and well capitalised bank” only days before its near-death experience. He also wrote to former RBS chief executive, Fred Goodwin, in the run up to RBS’s disastrous takeover of the Dutch bank ABN Amro, promising the support of the Scottish government and claiming RBS’s actions would be good for Scotland. The scale of the financial catastrophe was underlined by figures from the Scottish parliament’s information service which showed the total cost of the RBS and HBoS bailouts was £470 billion – three times the annual GDP of Scotland.
The nationalists, who are very close to the top Scottish bankers, had predicated their vision of an independent capitalist Scotland underpinned by a strong financial sector. Moreover, the catastrophic demise of the “Celtic Tiger” across the Irish sea and the effective bankruptcy of Iceland shattered the illusion promoted by the SNP of Scotland joining the mythical band of small, successful independent capitalist states, the so-called “arc of prosperity.”
To make matters worse for the SNP the Eurozone crisis has seen countries like Greece, Spain, Ireland and Portugal – the so-called PIGS – engulfed by economic turmoil. The working class has responded to draconian cuts by carrying through a series of general strikes in Greece and mass mobilisations in Spain and Portugal. Their big business governments are attempting to carry out savage austerity measures against the working class, urged on by the European Central Bank and the IMF. One, or a number of countries, could be forced out of the Eurozone as a result of the crisis. Either way the SNP’s previous policy of “independence in Europe” – an independent capitalist Scotland joining the Euro – is as dead a duck as the “arc of prosperity.”
It would be difficult to overstate the impact these earth-shattering events have had on the SNP leadership’s strategic thinking. Support for independence in Scotland has undoubtedly fallen since the onset of the world crisis in 2008. Currently, around 25-30% of Scots back the idea of an independent Scotland. The idea that it is possible for an independent Scotland based on capitalism to thrive has been dealt a severe blow by the banking crisis and the economic upheavals of the past three years. The appeal at this stage of a big business dominated independent Scotland led by the SNP, who themselves are on the verge of carrying out savage public spending cuts at the behest of the ConDem government, is not an attractive option for big layers of the working class.
For these and other factors, the SNP leadership has moved to reposition the SNP’s emphasis and relegate independence, at least for a time. “Full fiscal autonomy” or “Fiscal responsibility” are increasingly used by leading SNP figures to describe the party’s position for a significant extension of powers to the Scottish parliament, including over income tax, corporation tax etc. The Scottish government Finance secretary, John Swinney, summed up this approach when he said recently: “It is clearer than ever that Scotland needs economic and financial powers as the only alternative to a UK budget consolidation the likes of which we have not seen before, so that we have the tools we need to boost growth and revenues in the Scottish economy.” Sunday Herald 1st August 2010. For the SNP however, the “tools” needed to boost the economy are the slashing of corporation tax and turning Scotland into a low tax haven for corporate big business.
This change has been reflected in the SNP’s approach to an independence referendum. Initially, the referendum was envisaged as a straight vote for or against independence. However, when the SNP government came to publishing their plans in a bill they proposed a multi-option choice, including a question on extending the powers of the parliament as well as independence. Partly, this was a reflection of the fact that the other parties in the parliament looked certain to vote down a referendum bill. The SNP hoped to make the bill more palatable by including a question on more powers – which, to one degree or another, all the other main parties support. However, it was also a calculation by the SNP that public support for independence has been undermined back and enhanced devolution was likely to get far more public support.
The SNP’s referendum bill has still not been tabled before the parliament, despite being drawn up in early 2010. It will be delayed at least until the autumn and even then it is likely to be defeated by a combination of Labour, Tory and Lib Dem opposition. These parties are promoting the Calman commission’s proposals for a limited extension of powers – which are now largely supported by the Cameron led coalition at Westminster. Calman’s proposals would not necessarily require a referendum, if there was agreement between the Scottish and UK governments over the transfer of powers.
The Socialist Party Scotland supports the right of the Scottish people to a multi-option referendum that would include questions on full independence as well as significantly increased powers. Currently, public support for more powers is running at more than double that of independence.
A socialist approach to the National question and independence
Socialist Party Scotland traces our political roots back to the Militant, which emerged as the biggest Marxist force in Britain during the 1970’s and 1980’s. Today the ideas of Militant are continued through the work of the Socialist Party in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Internationally, we are organised alongside our sister parties in the Committee for a Workers’ International, which has parties and groups in 40 countries across the world.
The parties of the CWI have an unparalleled record of defending the rights of national and religious minorities and of nations within multi-national states. This includes working to build socialist ideas in areas of the world riven by sectarian, national and ethnic conflict and division such as Northern Ireland, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Israel/Palestine, Lebanon and India to name a few. Our fundamental approach is to defend the rights of nations and minorities to self determination and that includes the right to form an independent state, where a majority want to do so. Alongside this we stand implacably for the unity of the working class within and across nations, at all times. For example we recognise that public sector workers in Scotland and England have much more in common with each other than they do with a top Scottish or English banker. Or the millionaire politicians who want workers to pay for a crisis they did nothing to create.
Militant, the forerunner of the Socialist Party have always taken a principled position on the democratic rights of the Scottish people. Militant advocated a yes vote in the 1979 devolution referendum. This was at the time when sections of the Labour left opposed devolution, including Robin Cook who was on the left at that time. Even organisations that purported to be standing in the traditions of Marxism like the Socialist Workers Party, intervened in the ’79 referendum with the slogan “We don’t need devolution – What we need is revolution.” This light minded approach was based on the SWP’s denial that there was a legitimate national question in Scotland. They believed that Scottish nationalism was, in fact, a reactionary development.
They completely misunderstood that for a section of the working class, their nationalism, including support for an assembly, or even independence, was linked to searching for a way out of the nightmare of capitalism. In other words it had a progressive character. As Trotsky put it nationalism, in the consciousness of the oppressed, could be “the outer shell of an immature Bolshevism.
While giving not one iota of support to the nationalism of the bourgeois, or the petty bourgeois leaders of the SNP, Militant, in contrast, did support the idea of a devolved Scottish parliament (assembly) as a democratic advance. Within which socialists would campaign for a socialist programme as part of the struggle for socialism throughout Britain.
Scottish nationalism and support for independence increased significantly during the 1980’s and the early 1990’s following the experience of Thatcherism, massive deindustrialisation, the poll tax and the electoral demise of the Tories as a national force in Scotland. We recognised these changes among the working class and young people and updated our programme to take account of this changing consciousness. So while in the 1979 referendum Militant put forward the slogan of a Socialist Britain with autonomy for Scotland – by the mid 90’s we stood for a socialist Scotland as part of a socialist federation of Britain. We left open whether Scotland would be an independent state and would voluntarily join a socialist federation, or whether Scotland would have a high degree of autonomy within a socialist federation of Britain.
We also supported the setting up of a Scottish parliament and a double Yes vote in the 1997 referendum, but pointed out that the powers proposed for the parliament would be insufficient. We linked the call for a parliament with real teeth to the need for a socialist solution. As a result of the strengthened support for independence Scottish Militant Labour – which was then part of the CWI – in 1997 adapted its programme on the national question and came out in support of an independent socialist Scotland.
Most of the leaders of SML dissolved themselves into the Scottish Socialist Party and eventually left the CWI in 2001. By then they had abandoned a Marxist policy on the national question and on many other fundamental political issues. The SSP leaders instead advocated a left nationalist approach. That is they saw the struggle for independence as increasingly a priority and indeed a prerequisite for the achievement of socialism. They adopted a two-stages method of first independence and then socialism. This led to an increasing tendency to relegate the policy of an independent socialist Scotland and promote illusions in what a independent capitalist Scotland could achieve. This had the effect of blunting the impact that the SSP could make at a time when it was the class issues, New Labour’s attacks, the Iraq war etc that were dominating the outlook of the working class. The eventual demise of the SSP was symptomatic of the political mistakes of its leadership, including in their attitude to the national question.
Prospects for Scottish Independence
It is important to recognise that support for independence will “wax and wane”, depending on circumstances. Today, both support for independence and the strength off feeling for those who do support independence is at relatively low ebb. The key issues on the minds of trade unionists, workers, young people, the unemployed etc is the fear of the tsunami of attacks being prepared by the coalition of cuts at Westminster. Linked to this, at least among a growing minority, is a preparedness to take action to fight these attacks. It is therefore the class issues that are currently upper most in the minds of workers, with the national question, temporarily, having been pushed back.
The ConDem coalition is unpopular in Scotland and will, if it lasts, become hated, even more so than Thatcher. Nevertheless, the fact they have 12 MPs in Scotland has meant that there has not been the same reaction as a Tory majority government which would have had only 1 Scottish MP. Under those circumstances there could have been a rapid sharpening of the national question with major new concessions in terms of powers to the parliament having to be conceded to “save the union.” As it is, the Tories are not making the same mistakes as during the Thatcher era when she refused to give any concessions on the national question. In contrast Cameron met Alex Salmond within a week of becoming Prime Minister to discuss a new “respect agenda” which includes support for the transfer of more, albeit limited, powers to the Scottish parliament.
This trend has been reinforced by the economic crisis that has destroyed the “models” for a “viable” independent capitalist Scotland, and also by the fact that the SNP themselves are currently playing down independence in the wake of the crisis. Added to this is the fact that the SNP government is going along with the cuts and putting up no resistance to the austerity plans from the Cameron-led government.
Alex Salmond, summed up the position of the SNP leaderships tacit support for cuts in spending when he commented “It is really important, in my view, to be able to say to people how we can change the circumstances and increase revenue as well as decreasing expenditure. It is my job to come up with some answers, along with others. If you jump up and down nihilistically saying ‘dreadful dreadful, dreadful, cuts, cuts, cuts’, then I would be failing in my duty to the people.” Interview with The Times June 25th 2010. A bit more jumping up and down and anger on display by Salmond and the SNP at the planned £3.6 billlion in cuts over the next three years would be welcomed by the hundreds of thousands of workers in Scotland facing unprecedented cuts in jobs and public services.
As the SNP has been increasingly exposed as not fundamentally different from the rest of the capitalist parties, electoral support for the party has fallen significantly over the past year. It is likely that they will lose a number of seats next May and will no longer be the biggest party at Holyrood. While is it possible that Labour may benefit from a “it’s not us guv” approach, a left wing challenge next May organised through the Scottish Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition with support from Solidarity, the Socialist Party Scotland and others could make important gains.
However, that is not to argue that support for independence will not increase in the future. The outbreak of mass struggle in Scotland and across Britain by public sector workers and wider sections of the working class against the cuts will tend to push the national question back. It would also certainly create a wave of political radicalisation to the left. If a new mass workers party, or significant steps in that direction, were also to crystallise, this would also tend to undercut support for the SNP. But the lack of a movement against the cuts over a sustained period, combined with a new recession and significant defeats for the working class, could see the issue of an independent Scotland come back onto the agenda.
Tasks for this period
The key tasks for socialists in this period are to put forward a fighting programme for action to defeat the ConDem savagery. Concretely that means making the demonstration called by the STUC on October 23rd a huge display of opposition to the cuts. But that is only the start. United and coordinated strike action across the public sector – a one day public sector strike – needs to be organised as early as practicable in 2011. Alongside this, local alliances of anti-cuts campaigns involving the trade unions and local community campaigns and organisations need to be built. A Scottish wide conference of anti-cuts campaigns also needs to take place to establish a Scottish anti-cuts federation, similar to that which led the mass campaign against the poll tax. This type of campaign could play a leading role in building mass opposition to the cuts in the months ahead.
At the same time we should put forward the need to build a political voice for the working class, in the form of a mass workers party based that we would argue had a programme for nationalisation of the major sectors of the economy and a socialist planned economy.
Socialist Party Scotland supports a Scottish parliament with a full range of economic powers including the powers over nationalisation, income and corporation tax, benefits and the minimum wgae. Unlike the SNP we would fight for the nationalisation of the banks and other major industries in Scotland so they can be run democratically by the workers in those industries and the wider working class in the interests of society as a whole. We also support, again unlike the SNP, an increase in the minimum wage to £10 an hour, a living state pension and benefits that reflect the cost of living and the ending of the draconian anti-trade union laws.
While campaigning for increased powers, socialists will also work for a socialist majority both inside and outside parliament. Such a party would help lead a mass campaign against cuts and would immediately come into collision with the leadership of the SNP who are presently acting as puppets for the ConDem millionaire’s coalition of savage cuts. As are their councillors at a local level.
Socialist Party Scotland fights for the democratic rights of the Scottish people, including for a multi-option referendum on Scotland’s future relationship with the rest of Britain. We also support working class unity across borders and continents. In concrete terms that means a socialist Scotland linking up with a socialist England, Wales and Ireland in a democratic and voluntary confederation as a step towards a socialist Europe and indeed a socialist world.
For more from the Socialist Party Scotland on Scotland on Scotland and the National Question see
Socialists and the National Question September 2003
A socialist approach to Scottish independence – August 2004
The end of the union ? – February 2007
Ten years of Scottish Devolution – May 2009
SNP plan huge cuts to public services – July 2010